Has This Land Already Been ‘Promised?’

It crystallized for us the day it was announced that Harvard, under a shroud of secrecy and through silent intermediaries, had purchased the Allston Landing site between Western Avenue and Storrow Drive. We knew that very day that at some point in the not too distant future we—the tenants of the Charlesview Appartments, a strategically located, primarily low to moderate income housing complex—would find ourselves fighting for our homes against one of the richest and most powerful corporations in the world.

Who would have thought, however, that we would be fighting against our own ownership, a partnership of faith-based organizations that, after years of management headaches, seems tired of their responsibilities as owners and operators of the place which we call “home” and they apparently call “too much work.” Seemingly unwilling to put forth the effort to pursue the rehabilitation or redevelopment of Charlesview in its current location, they decided about three years ago (and without the benefit of any real comprehensive study or hard data) that the easiest road to the “promised land” (a.k.a. a property without the need for capital improvement that the Board had allowed to mount) was to seize on Harvard’s interest in annexing our once-thriving residential neighborhood for its campus.

“Harvard is too powerful!” “They do what they want.” “Harvard has a large endowment.” “We can only take what they’re willing to put on the table.” “Harvard already has plans drawn up for Charlesview and abutting parcels.” These are things we have heard from board members and their consultants as their rationale for their actions, which oppose the wish of many Charlesview residents to remain here. At a recent community meeting, one board member even had the nerve to point forcefully toward the heavens as his reason for pushing ahead with their actions, as though they had God’s mandate to sell out and uproot the existing residents in favor of other housing elsewhere.

People sometimes ask us, “how can you not prefer something new?” The truth is, like anyone, we would prefer new, but we believe that this goal can be achieved in our current location. Charlesview has always offered an excellent quality of life to its residents. It has allowed hard-working people from all walks of life, religions, nationalities, and ethnicities to form a safe, comfortable, and trusting community.

It has also always been a convenient and central point of departure with easy access to the transportation nodes at Harvard Square, Central Square, and Union Square. There is access to open space along the Charles River, at nearby play areas like Smith’s Field, and even within our own community.

This part of Allston has always been a great and thriving place to live. Thriving that is, until Harvard, emboldened by the relatively little resistance the community was able to muster after their clandestine land grab, bought up and started closing down more and more businesses. And so now storefronts lie vacant and neighbors are being displaced. We recognize that some of our neighbors may have differing opinions and even living conditions. We respect those opinions and believe that ultimately we are all fighting for the same thing: better conditions and a better quality of life. It must be understood, however, that the responsibility for correcting those conditions lies with the Charlesview board of directors. This is not Harvard’s problem to resolve.

But the Charlesview board has preferred to merely fly below the radar, pushing ahead with a “process” bent on reaching a foregone conclusion. The board seems reluctant to push back at Harvard for better sites, community benefits, and other improvements for Charlesview. It is as if the board believes that demanding full value for our asset would somehow offend Harvard and cause the board to lose its opportunity.

And so we tenants are left with no other option than to begin to tell our story and to enlist the help and support of our tenants, our neighbors, our community leaders, elected officials, community groups, students, and governmental agencies with oversight over this place we call “home.” We are at once saddened at finding ourselves having to fight this battle that we did not ask for, and at the same time committed to doing what we can to ensure that residents have a voice; that we, and our opinions, are respected and taken into account.

We are thankful that our would-be neighbors raised their own serious concerns about the proposed plans for 400 units at the small Brighton Mills site, which residents have never approved and yet the board wants to accept. The board and its silent partner apparently do not believe we deserve this right, which is all we are asking for.

Ricardo Sanchez is a resident of Charlesview and a member of the Charlesview Residents Organization.